Saddam outfoxes the west again

Why does the US persist in a policy that makes the Iraqi leader stronger, richer and more popular th

A state of war exists between the United States and Iraq. American warplanes patrol the northern and southern skies, and Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries take futile pot-shots at them. The F-16s fire back. Iraq announces, as it did on Monday, the heroic deaths of martyrs who defended the homeland from foreign aggression. The kill ratio cannot be measured since, however many Iraqis die, the number of Americans killed remains zero. Why, most of the world wonders, does the US persist in a battle that divides the international community, wins sympathy for the mass murderer Saddam Hussein and compels more of the world's Muslims to want to shoot American diplomats and tourists?

President Bill Clinton and his administration, like the Republicans before them, insist that their battle is with the Iraqi regime, not the Iraqi people. Washington duly proclaims its intention not to harm Iraq's civilians even as it imposes economic sanctions that malnourish them and leave them without medicines and anaesthetics. It declares it has their interests at heart on every occasion it drops bombs on them. In the four-day aerial barrage before Christmas, at least 68 non-combatant Iraqis died. So far as anyone can tell, Saddam Hussein is still alive. And in this war, brother, the bad guy's winning.

In the eight years since Iraq retreated from occupied Kuwait, the US has repeatedly announced its three objectives: enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions; elimination of Iraq's arms of mass destruction - chemical and biological weapons, long-range delivery systems and nuclear research; and, finally, the overthrow of the Iraqi regime. Yet the US calls on this very regime to obey international law without offering it any incentive to do so. Further, it does not say whether a future Iraqi government would face the same restrictions on its military and economic power.

For eight years, the US has enforced economic sanctions that have starved, impoverished and destroyed the health of the Iraqi people with whom it says it has no quarrel. For eight years, the US has reserved the right to bomb Iraq. Knowing this, Saddam provokes America to generate support for his leadership in the Arab world. For eight years, the US has given money, weapons and training to Iraqi dissidents in the north, who have as little hope of defeating Saddam as they have of uniting their disparate forces. By any measure, the past eight years have constituted a long term of failure. So, what is the fall-back position? Well, more of the same. And if that fails again, well, even more of more of the same.

The only successful aspect of the policy came from the Unscom inspections, however much Saddam's minions impeded and delayed them. On Unscom's own analysis, its inspectors have found and destroyed most of Saddam's stocks. Unscom was fortunate to have received information on weapons programmes from some of their architects. Among these were two of Saddam's sons-in-law, who foolishly returned home from exile in Amman to be murdered for treason. Another was Dr Nassir al-Hindawi, an American-trained microbiologist who turned over to Unscom most of the documents on the germ warfare programme he had himself instigated. Saddam has now arrested Hindawi, another unprotected victim of co-operation with the UN and the US. Others were the Kurds and Shi-ites who worked for the CIA in the northern city of Irbil, where American forces turned a blind eye to their slaughter by the Iraqi army. Only an exceptionally brave Iraqi technician would dare to tell the US or UN what he knows about weapons, so long as the US, which has not even asked to speak to Hindawi, lacks the means or willingness to spare him the torments of Saddam's torture chambers.

The US has repeatedly undermined Unscom's credibility, particularly by permitting one American inspector, Major Scott Ridder, to share his discoveries with the Israelis. This was well beyond Unscom's terms of reference, and the Iraqis reacted accordingly. The US dealt Unscom its death-blow with the four-day pre-Ramadan missile and bomb display. Tariq Aziz, the moustachioed mouthpiece of the regime, predictably announced after the bombardment that the weapons inspectors could not return. What can the US do about it? Bomb again? Sooner or later, someone in Washington will realise that Saddam, who provokes the attacks, needs them. They cost him nothing. The populace in other Arab countries rallies to him, rather than their own leaders, as the champion who faces down the west.

Over eight years, far longer than the UN expected, UN inspectors have significantly reduced Iraq's stores of weapons. Iraq has been unable to obtain a significant supply of military spare parts or to modernise its armed forces. The army, already weakened by the allied onslaught of 1991, is using arms that have become obsolete in the last eight years. The US speaks of containment, but the word has become meaningless. There is nothing to contain. Iraq cannot invade Iran or Kuwait again, because its armed forces are no match for the Iranian army or for the American forces protecting Kuwait.

The Iraqi army, as a threat to world peace, is a spent force. It has reverted to the role which the British created for it in the 1920s: saving the regime in Baghdad from the restive tribes who reject its legitimacy. The Iraqi army was never intended for an offensive mission, of the kind it engaged in when it invaded Iran in 1980 and Kuwait ten years later. Its primary purpose, as with almost all other Arab armies, was controlling the natives so the rulers could sell cheap oil without hindrance to the west. The Iraqi army's excessively enthusiastic pursuit of its mission followed the precedent set by its British mentors, who introduced the concept of aerial bombardment of civilians to achieve political goals. Indeed, the US and Britain continue that policy today.

"It is not at all clear that Saddam Hussein wants a change," an official in the UN Secretariat said. "The present set-up suits him. It wins him sympathy. He makes money out of sanctions. Periodic bombing improves his political position. He's keeping the US in a state of rage." If America's outrageous conduct is good for Saddam, why doesn't President Clinton adopt some other strategy? If Saddam does not want a change, why should the US serve his interests by pursuing a policy that has failed? It may be that the policy suits Clinton, giving him a place to seem tough and presidential amid his ridiculous scandals. Or it may be, as the UN official speculated, that "the US cannot admit failure".

Unicef reports that sanctions have resulted in the deaths of about 5,000 Iraqi children a month for eight years. Saddam may be as responsible for their deaths as the US, but the US could shift responsibility for the suffering squarely on to Saddam by scrapping the sanctions and enforcing a ban on military supplies. Until then, Iraqi suffering is winning the propaganda war for Saddam at home, in most of the third world, Russia, China and much of Europe.

Meanwhile, is anyone defusing tension in the Middle East, reducing arms levels and preventing the Arabs from arming themselves so that Israel can feel safe at last? Up to a point. Last month, the Gulf state of Qatar staged a trade fair for companies selling the latest in military and police technology to the Arab world. Most of the states that complain about the proliferation of weaponry in the Arab world sent representatives, who did an estimated $800 million-worth of business in tanks, armoured vehicles, assault rifles, surveillance equipment and bullet-proof vests. One popular item was the life-saving jacket worn by Mikhail Gorbachev in the days when he was so respected in his own country that someone might have killed him. No Arab head of state should be without one. American, British, French and German firms were there. So was SIBAT, the military export organisation from Israel. SIBAT was offering, in the words of Middle East Magazine, "unique and low-armoured fighting vehicles and a six-wheeled drive vehicle called Raider with a similarly unique rear pivoting double axle platform able to gain traction in most driving situations . . ." The containment doctrine has been adapted to suit altered circumstances. Israel is no longer an official enemy of most of the Gulf states. American arms manufacturers can no longer persuade the sheikhs to buy their goods, and thus send oil dollars back to America, by dangling the Soviet threat in front of them. So Iraq is a convenient enemy indeed. Did I say the policy was failing? Perhaps not.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour

Show Hide image

Why the elites always rule

Since an Italian sociologist coined the word “elite” in 1902, it has become a term of abuse. But history is the story of one elite replacing another – as the votes for Trump and Brexit have shown.

Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign was based on the rejection of the “establishment”. Theresa May condemned the rootless “international elites” in her leader’s speech at last October’s Conservative party conference. On the European continent, increasingly popular right-wing parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National and the German Alternative für Deutschland, as well as Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, delight in denouncing the “Eurocratic” elites. But where does the term “elite” come from, and what does it mean?

It was Vilfredo Pareto who, in 1902, gave the term the meaning that it has today. We mostly think of Pareto as the economist who came up with ideas such as “Pareto efficiency” and the “Pareto principle”. The latter – sometimes known as the “power law”, or the “80/20 rule” – stipulates that 80 per cent of the land always ends up belonging to 20 per cent of the population. Pareto deduced this by studying land distribution in Italy at the turn of the 20th century. He also found that 20 per cent of the pea pods in his garden produced 80 per cent of the peas. Pareto, however, was not only an economist. In later life, he turned his hand to sociology, and it was in this field that he developed his theory of the “circulation of elites”.

The term élite, used in its current socio­logical sense, first appeared in his 1902 book Les systèmes socialistes (“socialist systems”). Its aim was to analyse Marxism as a new form of “secular” religion. And it was the French word élite that he used: naturally, one might say, for a book written in French. Pareto, who was bilingual, wrote in French and Italian. He was born in Paris in 1848 to a French mother and an Italian father; his father was a Genoese marquis who had accompanied the political activist Giuseppe Mazzini into exile. In honour of the revolution that was taking place in Germany at the time, Pareto was at first named Fritz Wilfried. This was latinised into Vilfredo Federico on the family’s return to Italy in 1858.

When Pareto wrote his masterpiece – the 3,000-page Trattato di sociologia ­generale (“treatise on general sociology”) – in 1916, he retained the French word élite even though the work was in Italian. Previously, he had used “aristocracy”, but that didn’t seem to fit the democratic regime that had come into existence after Italian unification. Nor did he want to use his rival Gaetano Mosca’s term “ruling class”; the two had bitter arguments about who first came up with the idea of a ruling minority.

Pareto wanted to capture the idea that a minority will always rule without recourse to outdated notions of heredity or Marxist concepts of class. So he settled on élite, an old French word that has its origins in the Latin eligere, meaning “to select” (the best).

In the Trattato, he offered his definition of an elite. His idea was to rank everyone on a scale of one to ten and that those with the highest marks in their field would be considered the elite. Pareto was willing to judge lawyers, politicians, swindlers, courtesans or chess players. This ranking was to be morally neutral: beyond “good and evil”, to use the language of the time. So one could identify the best thief, whether that was considered a worthy profession or not.

Napoleon was his prime example: whether he was a good or a bad man was irrelevant, as were the policies he might have pursued. Napoleon had undeniable political qualities that, according to Pareto, marked him out as one of the elite. Napoleon is important
because Pareto made a distinction within the elite – everyone with the highest indices within their branch of activity was a member of an elite – separating out the governing from the non-governing elite. The former was what interested him most.

This is not to suggest that the non-governing elite and the non-elite were of no interest to him, but they had a specific and limited role to play, which was the replenishment of the governing elite. For Pareto, this group was the key to understanding society as a whole – for whatever values this elite incarnated would be reflected in society. But he believed that there was an inevitable “physiological” law that stipulated the continuous decline of the elite, thereby making way for a new elite. As he put it in one of his most memorable phrases, “History is the graveyard of elites.”

***

Pareto’s thesis was that elites always rule. There is always the domination of the minority over the majority. And history is just the story of one elite replacing another. This is what he called the “circulation of elites”. When the current elite starts to decline, it is challenged and makes way for another. Pareto thought that this came about in two ways: either through assimilation, the new elite merging with elements of the old, or through revolution, the new elite wiping out the old. He used the metaphor of a river to make his point. Most of the time, the river flows continuously, smoothly incorporating its tributaries, but sometimes, after a storm, it floods and breaks its banks.

Drawing on his Italian predecessor Machiavelli, Pareto identified two types of elite rulers. The first, whom he called the “foxes”, are those who dominate mainly through combinazioni (“combination”): deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force. “Lions”, on the other hand, are more conservative. They emphasise unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes. History is the slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again.

The relevance of Pareto’s theories to the world today is clear. After a period of foxes in power, the lions are back with renewed vigour. Donald Trump, as his behaviour during the US presidential campaign confirmed, is perfectly at ease with the use of intimidation and violence. He claimed that he wants to have a wall built between the United States and Mexico. His mooted economic policies are largely based on protectionism and tariffs. Regardless of his dubious personal ethics – a classic separation between the elite and the people – he stands for the traditional (white) American way of life and religion.

This is in stark contrast to the Obama administration and the Cameron government, both of which, compared to what has come since the votes for Trump and Brexit, were relatively open and liberal. Pareto’s schema goes beyond the left/right divide; the whole point of his Systèmes socialistes was to demonstrate that Marxism, as a secular religion, signalled a return to faith, and thus the return of the lions in politics.

In today’s context, the foxes are the forces of globalisation and liberalism – in the positive sense of developing an open, inter­connected and tolerant world; and in the negative sense of neoliberalism and the dehumanising extension of an economic calculus to all aspects of human life. The lions represent the reaction, centring themselves in the community, to which they may be more attentive, but bringing increased xenophobia, intolerance and conservatism. For Pareto, the lions and foxes are two different types of rule, both with strengths and weaknesses. Yet the elite is always composed of the two elements. The question is: which one dominates at any given time?

What we know of Theresa May’s government suggests that she runs a tight ship. She has a close – and closed – group of confidants, and she keeps a firm grip on the people under her. She is willing to dispense with parliament in her negotiation of Brexit, deeming it within the royal prerogative. Nobody yet knows her plan.

The European Union is a quintessentially foxlike project, based on negotiation, compromise and combination. Its rejection is a victory of the lions over the foxes. The lions are gaining prominence across the Western world, not just in Trumpland and Brexit Britain. Far-right movements have risen by rejecting the EU. It should come as no surprise that many of these movements (including Trump in the US) admire Vladimir Putin, at least for his strongman style.

Asia hasn’t been spared this movement, either. After years of tentative openness in China, at least with the economy, Xi Jinping has declared himself the “core” leader, in the mould of the previous strongmen Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has also hardened his stance, and he was the first world leader to meet with President-Elect Donald Trump. Narendra Modi in India and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are in the same mould, the latter coming to power on the back of promising to kill criminals and drug dealers. After the failed coup against him in July, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also been cracking down on Turkey.

***


In Les systèmes socialistes, Pareto elaborated on how a new elite replaces the old. A, the old elite, would be challenged by B, the new, in alliance with C, the people. B would win the support of C by making promises that, once in power, it wouldn’t keep. If that sounds like the behaviour of most politicians, that is because it probably is. But what Pareto was pointing out was how, in its struggle for power, the new elite politicised groups that were not political before.

What we know of Trump supporters and Brexiteers is that many feel disenfranchised: the turnout in the EU referendum could not have been greater than in the 2015 general election otherwise, and significant numbers of those who voted for Trump had never voted before. There is no reason to think that they, too, won’t be betrayed by the new leaders they helped to bring to power.

In the last years of his life, Pareto offered a commentary on Italy in the 1920s. He denounced the state’s inability to enforce its decisions and the way that Italians spent their time flaunting their ability to break the law and get away with it. He coined the phrase “demagogic plutocracy” to characterise the period, in which the rich ruled behind a façade of democratic politics. He thought this particularly insidious for two reasons: those in power were more interested in siphoning off wealth for their personal ends than encouraging the production of new wealth, and consequently undermined national prosperity (remember Pareto’s training as an economist); and, as the demagogic elites govern through deceit and cunning, they are able to mask their rule for longer periods.

Much has been made of Trump’s “populism”, but the term “demagogic plutocrat” seems particularly apt for him, too: he is a wealthy man who will advance the interests of his small clique to the detriment of the well-being of the nation, all behind the smokescreen of democratic politics.

There are other ways in which Pareto can help us understand our predicament. After all, he coined the 80/20 rule, of which we hear an intensified echo in the idea of “the One Per Cent”. Trump is a fully paid-up member of the One Per Cent, a group that he claims to be defending the 99 Per Cent from (or, perhaps, he is an unpaid-up member, given that what unites the One Per Cent is its reluctance to pay taxes). When we perceive the natural inequality of the distribution of resources as expressed through Pareto’s “power law”, we are intellectually empowered to try to do something about it.

Those writings on 1920s Italy landed Pareto in trouble, as his theory of the circulation of elites predicted that a “demagogic plutocracy”, dominated by foxes, would necessarily make way for a “military plutocracy”, this time led by lions willing to restore the power of the state. In this, he was often considered a defender of Mussolini, and Il Duce certainly tried to make the best of that possibility by making Pareto a senator. Yet there is a difference between prediction and endorsement, and Pareto, who died in 1923, had already been living as a recluse in Céligny in Switzerland for some time – earning him the nickname “the hermit of Céligny” – with only his cats for company, far removed from day-to-day Italian politics. He remained a liberal to his death, content to stay above the fray.

Like all good liberals, Pareto admired Britain above all. As an economist, he had vehemently defended its system of free trade in the face of outraged opposition in Italy. He also advocated British pluralism and tolerance. Liberalism is important here: in proposing to set up new trade barriers and restrict freedom of movement, exacerbated by their more or less blatant xenophobia, Trump and Brexit challenge the values at the heart of the liberal world.

***


What was crucial for Pareto was that new elites would rise and challenge the old. It was through the “circulation of elites” that history moved. Yet the fear today is that history has come to a standstill, that elites have ­become fossilised. Electors are fed up with choosing between the same old candidates, who seem to be proposing the same old thing. No wonder people are willing to try something new.

This fear of the immobility of elites has been expressed before. In 1956, the American sociologist C Wright Mills published The Power Elite. The book has not been out of print since. It is thanks to him that the term was anglicised and took on the pejorative sense it has today. For Mills, Cold War America had come to be dominated by a unified political, commercial and military elite. With the 20th century came the growth of nationwide US corporations, replacing the older, more self-sufficient farmers of the 19th century.

This made it increasingly difficult to ­distinguish between the interests of large US companies and those of the nation as a whole. “What’s good for General Motors,” as the phrase went, “is good for America.” As a result, political and commercial interests were becoming ever more intertwined. One had only to add the Cold War to the mix to see how the military would join such a nexus.

Mills theorised what President Dwight D Eisenhower denounced in his January 1961 farewell speech as the “military-industrial complex” (Eisenhower had wanted to add the word “congressional”, but that was thought to be too risky and was struck out of the speech). For Mills, the circulation of elites – a new elite rising to challenge the old – had come to an end. If there was any circulation at all, it was the ease with which this new power elite moved from one part of the elite to the other: the “revolving door”.

The Cold War is over but there is a similar sense of immobility at present concerning the political elite. Must one be the child or wife of a past US president to run for that office? After Hillary Clinton, will Chelsea run, too? Must one have gone to Eton, or at least Oxford or Cambridge, to reach the cabinet? In France is it Sciences Po and Éna?

The vote for Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right are, beyond doubt, reactions to this sentiment. And they bear out Pareto’s theses: the new elites have aligned themselves with the people to challenge the old elites. The lions are challenging the foxes. Needless to say, the lions, too, are prototypically elites. Trump is a plutocrat. Boris Johnson, the co-leader of the Leave campaign, is as “establishment” as they come (he is an Old Etonian and an Oxford graduate). Nigel Farage is a public-school-educated, multimillionaire ex-stockbroker. Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Putin is ex-KGB.

Pareto placed his hopes for the continuing circulation of elites in technological, economic and social developments. He believed that these transformations would give rise to new elites that would challenge the old political ruling class.

We are now living through one of the biggest ever technological revolutions, brought about by the internet. Some have argued that social media tipped the vote in favour of Brexit. Arron Banks’s Leave.EU website relentlessly targeted disgruntled blue-collar workers through social media, using simple, sometimes grotesque anti-immigration messages (as a recent profile of Banks in the New Statesman made clear) that mimicked the strategies of the US hard right.

Trump’s most vocal supporters include the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has found the internet a valuable tool for propagating his ideas. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party, claims that the Russian plane crash in 2010 that killed his twin brother (then the country’s president) was a political assassination, and has accused the Polish prime minister of the time, Donald Tusk, now the president of the European Council, of being “at least morally” responsible. (The official explanation is that the poorly trained pilots crashed the plane in heavy fog.)

It need not be like this. Silicon Valley is a world unto itself, but when some of its members – a new technological elite – start to play a more active role in politics, that might become a catalyst for change. In the UK, it has been the legal, financial and technological sectors that so far have led the pushback against a “hard” Brexit. And we should not forget how the social movements that grew out of Occupy have already been changing the nature of politics in many southern European countries.

The pendulum is swinging back to the lions. In some respects, this might be welcome, because globalisation has left too many behind and they need to be helped. However, Pareto’s lesson was one of moderation. Both lions and foxes have their strengths and weaknesses, and political elites are a combination of the two, with one element dominating temporarily. Pareto, as he did in Italy in the 1920s, would have predicted a return of the lions. But as a liberal, he would have cautioned against xenophobia, protectionism and violence.

If the lions can serve as correctives to the excesses of globalisation, their return is salutary. Yet the circulation of elites is a process more often of amalgamation than replacement. The challenge to liberal politics is to articulate a balance between the values of an open, welcoming society and of one that takes care of its most vulnerable members. Now, as ever, the task is to find the balance between the lions and the foxes. l

Hugo Drochon is the author of “Nietzsche’s Great Politics” (Princeton University Press)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge